I am always the last to know. That may be why I only heard about Chandran Nair when I started reading his book, Consumptionomics, even though he has been a prominent consultant in Hong Kong for many years. A long lunch with him yesterday confirms my suspicion - that he may be one of the most important Asian thinkers writing about globalisation and the future of Asia today.
Here's a contradiction that Nair likes to point out. He reads in one page of the Financial Times that Asia, especially China, needs to rebalance from export-driven production and investment to consumer-driven growth. Then on another page, experts warn against an Asian population explosion and expanding middle class.
Just having half the 2.5 billion Indians and Chinese living like Americans would consume so much of our natural resources you would need another earth-like planet to satisfy them. But this is a contradiction only because the two opposing demands are part of a Western-centric narrative on Asia and China. He believes western liberal democracy creates the individualist sense of entitlement which morphs into the Western consumer culture of market economics. For example, 70 per cent of the American GDP is related to consumer-driven service industries.
If Asians are to adopt democracy and allow markets to help determine the efficient allocation of resources, it will have to be radically different from the Western models, or rather their practices. "Owning a car is not a right," he said. Having proper public roads and transport systems and clean air, however, qualify as genuine rights as they relate to basic needs. His solution is having a strong state that can impose public goods on its population. If I am not mistaken, he is somewhat impartial whether this would be democratic like India or authoritarian like China so long as it delivers the (public) goods.
A New York Times op-ed piece said: "History shows authoritarianism is neither necessary nor sufficient for development." Yes, that's true, but Western-style democracy is neither necessary nor sufficient for development. What is important is that a strong state has the power to limit growth, resource exploitation and consumerism. Otherwise, Asia faces endless political conflicts, territorial disputes and ecological disasters.
An optimist, though, Nair thinks many Asian countries, given their history and culture, have a far better chance of achieving what he calls austerity - or disciplined living with prosperity - than most others.